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Originally published Friday, May 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Kerlikowske sails through the Senate

After years of overseeing drug-enforcement policies in the Seattle Police Department, former Chief Gil Kerlikowske now will take what he learned to a national stage. On Thursday, Kerlikowske, as expected, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Seattle Times staff and The Associated Press

After years of overseeing drug-enforcement policies in the Seattle Police Department, former Chief Gil Kerlikowske now will take what he learned to a national stage.

On Thursday, Kerlikowske, as expected, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position commonly known as "drug czar."

Kerlikowske, a 36-year law-enforcement veteran who has been Seattle's top cop for nine years, has pledged to take a balanced approach to the job using scientific study to shape policy. He also said he will focus on reducing demand for illicit drugs in the United States — a sharp contrast from the Bush administration's focus on intercepting drugs as they cross the border and punishing drug crimes.

Kerlikowske's official last day as police chief was last Friday. Seattle Deputy Chief John Diaz has been named the city's interim chief and said he will seek the job.

The Senate approved Kerlikowske's nomination 91-1, with a nay from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

Kerlikowske could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Kerlikowske, 59, highly qualified and said he was pleased Kerlikowske "supports combating drug use and crime with all the tools at our disposal, including enforcement, prevention and treatment."

In Seattle, Kerlikowske balanced traditional law-enforcement efforts with support of drug-court programs that steer users into treatment to avoid criminal convictions. He also displayed a tolerance for needle-exchange programs; medical-marijuana laws; and Seattle's annual Hempfest.

Additionally, he accepted voter approval of a 2003 city ballot measure that made marijuana possession a low law-enforcement priority.

Kerlikowske's confirmation comes at a crucial time. In addition to the problems posed by Mexican drug cartels, the war in Afghanistan is complicated by the illegal drug trade there. Kerlikowske has pledged to develop a strategy to address drug-related violence along the Mexican border.

President Obama's choice of Kerlikowske and an increased emphasis on alternative drug courts signal a sharp departure from Bush-administration policies.

Kerlikowske, who was appointed Seattle chief in 2000 by then-Mayor Paul Schell, had worked the previous two years as deputy director of the Justice Department's community-oriented policing division during the Clinton administration.

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Kerlikowske began his career as a street cop in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1972 and went on to serve as chief in two Florida cities, Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie.

He was commissioner of the Buffalo, N.Y., police department in the 1990s, and left there for the deputy-director position in the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

In Seattle, Kerlikowske won credit for stabilizing the Police Department after the departure of Norm Stamper following the 1999 World Trade Organization riots.

Crime rates dropped during Kerlikowske's time as chief, reaching historic lows in recent years. But his tenure at times was marked by controversy over allegations that he was too soft when it came to disciplining officers in misconduct cases.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who appointed Diaz as interim chief, has not said when he intends to make a permanent appointment. But a City Hall source said Nickels likely will wait until after the November mayoral election to avoid controversy over the selection.

"Gil led the Seattle Police Department with distinction, and it is with mixed emotions that I accept his resignation," Nickels said in a statement Thursday.

Along with Kerlikowske, the Obama administration has tapped King County Executive Ron Sims for deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former Gov. Gary Locke for Commerce secretary.

Information from Seattle Times archives and staff reporter Steve Miletich is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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